EU issues formal warning to Poland

People holding a giant Polish national flag are reflected in a mirror as they take part in a march demanding their government to respect the country's constitution in Warsaw, Poland (12 March 2016) Image copyright Reuters

The European Union has issued a formal warning to Poland for threatening the rule of law – one of the founding principles of the EU.

Critics of the right-wing Polish government have been angry at changes it has made to the country’s top court, leaving it, they say, in effect unable to review and veto legislation.

The warning from the European Commission could lead to Poland being stripped of its EU voting rights.

Poland has two weeks to respond.

Why is Poland worrying the EU?

Government takes control of state media

The EU has been having inconclusive talks with the Polish government since it announced a preliminary assessment of the new laws in January.

The Commission, the EU’s executive arm, can press a member state to change any measure considered a “systemic threat” to fundamental EU values.

Commissioner Frans Timmermans said political issues in Poland were the business of politicians in Poland.

But he tweeted: “Our business is preserving the rule of law, in line with the [EU] Treaties.”

EU’s rule of law action

Image copyright AFP

  • EU introduced mechanism in 2014 to protect fundamental values
  • Activated by “systemic breakdown” affecting proper functioning of state’s institutions and mechanisms
  • Three-stage process: Commission assessment and opinion, recommendation of action with time limit and then potential resort to Article 7 of Lisbon Treaty
  • Article 7 can mean suspension of state’s voting rights in EU Council, where ministers from 28 states shape EU policy

Poland’s conservative and populist Law and Justice party (PiS) government came to power in October last year.

In December it made changes to the top court, the Constitutional Tribunal, which, opponents say, render it unable to review laws.

Since then the government has ignored the court’s rulings, including one that found that the changes themselves were unconstitutional.

Justice Minister and Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro said he was “surprised and saddened” by the European Commission’s position.

The government “was ready to look for far-reaching compromises,” he said.

Mr Timmermans said he had spoken to Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo on Tuesday evening and she had confirmed that she wanted dialogue with the EU to continue.

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